A Dozen Philly Newsmakers: 2009

Jennifer Carroll, Rian Thal, Willie Brown and more: These folks gave us something to talk about.

By Joel Mathis
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Dec. 15, 2009

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Some of these folks made Philly a better place to live. Some didn’t. And for some of them it’s hard to say—but they certainly made this town a little more interesting, for good or ill. 

Charlene Arcila1. Gender Bender • In a bureaucracy that wants to label you an “M” or an “F,” Charlene Arcila is neither and both: The transgender woman got fed up in 2009 after two years of harassment from SEPTA drivers who couldn’t square her identity with the binary gender-identification stickers on her TransPass. Equality Advocates Pennsylvania, the state’s largest LGBT civil-rights organization, filed a complaint against SEPTA on her behalf, claiming the gender stickers are a violation of city, state and federal laws. SEPTA general manager Joe Casey ultimately rejected a recommendation to drop the stickers from the passes.

 2. Last Chance KidsPedro Martínez, Michael Vick and Allen Iverson were once the very best athletes their respective sports had to offer. All three landed in Philly this year, humbled and seeking redemption—or at least one last thrill before they ride off into the sunset. The fireballing Martinez didn’t get a happy ending: The Yankees (the pitcher’s nemeses during his glory years with the Red Sox) lit him up in the World Series, one of a million reasons the Phils were unable to repeat. The jury’s still out on Vick: The ex-con quarterback set off a round of controversy when he returned to football after serving his prison sentence for dogfighting, but has barely been on the field for the Eagles this year, emerging with spectacular plays only during a game in his former professional hometown of Atlanta. And Iverson? He wept openly on his return to the Sixers and gave the team a rare sellout for his first game back. Then again, he hasn’t really had a chance to complain about practice yet. 

3. Glamorous Murder Victim • There were, of course, hundreds of people who died violently in Philadelphia this year. But no murder victim quite caught the attention of the media like Rian Thal. After Thal was found shot execution-style in Bart Blatstein’s brand-new apartment building right off the Piazza at Schmidts, the media spent the next few weeks obsessing over the details of her life: How a “nice girl” who had attended a “good private Jewish school” could become a “party girl” mixed up with “drugs, money and rappers.” It helped goose the story that four kilos of cocaine and more than $100,000 cash were found in the apartment where she died. But Thal wasn’t the only person murdered in her apartment that day: a friend, Timothy Gilmore, died at her side. You’d hardly know it, though, from coverage of the crime.

4. King of Transit • Just about everybody in Philadelphia breathed a sigh of relief when the Transport Workers Union decided not to go on strike when the World Series was in town—and then cursed when the union, led by Willie Brown, walked off the job without warning just a few hours after the Yankees left. What Brown accomplished was impressive—and maybe maddening. He secured a pay raise for his public-sector workers at a time when many Philadelphians are struggling to hold onto their jobs. But Brown’s biggest impact might’ve been on Mayor Nutter’s political fortunes. His “Little Caesar” slam on Nutter helped cement the mayor’s faltering public image as a well-meaning public servant who might be in way over his head trying to guide the city through a nasty recession.

5. Budding Superstars • Early in the year, Pennsylvania’s hope for music fame rested on the shoulders of Asher Roth, who grabbed all the headlines—including a PW cover story that will surely haunt this publication to its end days—said outrageous things on Twitter and made splashy videos aimed squarely at the douchey-douchebag demographic. But it was Amanda Blank and Kurt Vile who emerged from Philly into stardom this year, the old-fashioned way: Vile methodically built his craft and audience by releasing an acclaimed pair of eccentric lo-fi albums full of twangy psychedelia that made him an indie fave and allowed him to finally quit his brewery job. Blank grabbed attention with an outrageous, energetic act that still made you want to buy her music even if you were a little embarrassed. Pitchfork dismissed Blank’s I Love You as “materialistic fuck-pop.” That actually sounds like an endorsement to us. 

6. Sexy Academic • Native Philadelphian Marc Lamont Hill seems to have it all—he’s young, sexy and smart, one of the most renowned African-American academics in the land. One thing he lost this year: His high-profile commenting gig on Fox News. The former Temple prof came under fire this fall for his defense of such lightning-rod figures as Van Jones and Mumia Abu-Jamal—whereupon the "fair and balanced" channel decided it didn’t really want that much balance. Even more wounding? Hill found out he had been fired through a Google Alert of the announcement by Fox News owner Rupert Murdoch. By year’s end, though, Hill was showing up on Fox News shows again—and conservative activists like the execrable David Horowitz were once again stepping up their criticism. Alas, we don’t see him as much in these parts anymore: He started a new teaching gig at Columbia University in the fall.

7. Media Ogre • Brian Tierney kept trying to play media baron in 2009, even as he brought Philadelphia’s daily newspapers—the Inquirer and Daily News— to the lowest point in their combined history: bankruptcy. Still, he spent the year talking about putting up a pay wall to make people shell out for stories at philly.com and parading through the pages of The New York Times Magazine comparing his product to a stale bagel. No matter. The man who will really decide the future of Philly’s media mainstays is Stephen Raslavich, the judge handling the newspaper bankruptcy process. Tierney tried to game the system by launching a “Keep it Local” campaign that claimed 7,000 signatures of support. Raslavich seemed unswayed, setting rules —still disputed in the appellate courts—that put Tierney at a disadvantage to reclaim the newspapers at bankruptcy auction. Tierney may yet retain ownership of the city’s signature dailies, but it’s Raslavich who will get the final say: He’ll be presiding over next year’s auction.

8. Investigative Reporters • If the city’s daily newspapers seemed to be in dire trouble in 2009, it wasn’t because they lacked for good journalism. The Inquirer forced changes at City Hall with its exposure of cronyism at the Board of Revision of Taxes. But in a year when a beleaguered Mayor Nutter and Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey were getting credit for one good thing—a lower murder rate that meant the word “Killadelphia” was being uttered less often—the Daily News team of Barbara Laker and Wendy Ruderman offered up a devastating series of reports about police-department corruption in their “Tainted Justice” series, examining the shortcuts and abuses allegedly committed by a rogue drug-investigations unit. At year’s end, the leader of that unit was under investigation by the FBI—and Laker and Ruderman had proven that Philadelphia’s “other” daily newspaper, always rumored to be closing soon, still had the power to stir up a little muck.

9. Almost-Prodigal Sports Columnist • Stephen A. Smith used to be one of the biggest, baddest, loudest commenters on the Philadelphia sports scene. Maybe he even got a little too big: His ESPN show memorably flamed out a few years back. In 2007, the Inquirer demoted him from his high-profile sports-columnist gig—and then fired him outright the year after that. This was supposed to be the year of Stephen A.’s big return to Philly—in November a labor arbitrator ruled the Inky hadn’t had a good reason for firing Smith, and ordered he be reinstated as a sports columnist. Only one problem: Smith’s byline still hasn’t appeared in the Inquirer since his “return.” And his biggest scoop of the year—Allen Iverson’s temporary “retirement” from the NBA—appeared on his own Web site instead of philly.com. By the end of the year, Smith had joined Fox Sports Radio as host of his own show. Smith and Iverson back in Philly again? 2009 almost became 2003.

10. Accidental Racist • Now that it’s declared bankruptcy, it seems likely that the Valley Swim Club will always be remembered for this summer’s headline-making decision to turn away a group of young, mostly African-American swimmers from a nearby day camp because of the way they changed the “complexion” of the club’s atmosphere. But what we’ll always remember is the image of club president John Duesler standing before television cameras, shell-shocked, wife at his side, straining under the realization that he had stumbled into a racial imbroglio he couldn’t possibly win. “My husband, he’s not one of the good guys, he’s one of the great guys,” his wife Bernice told reporters. “This does not represent what we stand for or how we raise our children.” The damage, however, had been done.

11. Survivor • When 2009 opened, there was a real question whether Brian Hickey—a longtime Philadelphia journalist who has contributed to most of the city’s major publications, including PW —would ever write again. Hickey had been badly injured in a November 2008 hit-and-run accident that left him (as he described in a memorable Philadelphia Magazine article) relearning “how to walk, talk, and take a shower or a piss by myself.” He got back into writing with an article for the newsletter of the rehabilitation center where he learned to do all those things, and proceeded from there to regular piss-and-vinegar takedowns of Arthur Kade on his blog Philly Blunt. By year’s end, it appeared—in print, anyway—that the old Brian Hickey was back. “Really,” he wrote in the Phillymag piece, “who can deny that any dude who can say ‘I was in a coma’ is anything but badass?”

12. Philly’s Next Top Chefs • There was some good news around town this year. Jose Garces grabbed all the attention—and the title of new Iron Chef—but even without him, Philly continued to build its growing rep as a foodie’s paradise when it placed two chefs on the reality-show competition. Xochitl’s Jennifer Zavala flamed out in the season’s very first episode with a daring but ill-considered seitan recipe. 10 Arts’ Jennifer Carroll, survived to the later rounds before being kicked off. Competition was never so tasty—or so good for Philly’s restaurant scene.

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